In a forceful move against the socialist centrist policies of Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, residents of Santa Cruz province, the country’s wealthiest, heeded the call of their Governor, Rubén Costas and last night seized control of Viru Viru airport, Bolivia’s busiest.
Landlocked Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, has the region’s largest (per capita) indigenous population. Variously estimated as between 56% and 70% of the country’s citizens, Bolivian indigenous people elected one of their own, Morales, who is an Aymara, in 2006.
Morales, a protégé of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, took control of all of Bolivia’s airports upon taking office in early 2007. Along with control, Morales’ central government also appropriated all landing fees, a substantial revenue stream, especially in the case of busy Viru Viru. Normally, local governments retain such revenues and control of the airport itself. In thirty years of dealing with airport authorities all over this hemisphere, I never encountered a situation where control of an airport (and especially landing fees) was vested in the nation’s central government.
This is not the first time residents of Santa Cruz province have resisted the socialism of the Morales government. Governor Costas has declared often and loudly that control of Santa Cruz will not be ceded to the Morales administration. The governor has the backing of a solid majority of Santa Cruz’s citizens, and in this instance the citizens have demonstrated they are prepared to act to defend their interests. According to Reuters, local authorities initiated the crisis by demanding that arriving flights pay landing fees, in cash, to them. In response, the Morales government sent in approximately 220 troops to retake control of the airport on Thursday, whereupon Governor Costas issued his call for action by the citizens. As the International Herald Tribune notes:
“The airport conflict has broad political implications because Santa Cruz, the nation's largest and wealthiest province, has resisted Morales' efforts to nationalize industries and redistribute land and wealth to Bolivia's poor majority.
Santa Cruz leaders want autonomy from La Paz and a bigger share of their state's natural gas revenues, but Morales needs the cash for other, desperately poor parts of the country.”
The airport seizure marks the first real test by a Bolivian opposition group of not only the Morales government, but in the larger sense, of the entire “21st Century Socialism” movement promulgated by Venezuelan dictator, Hugo Chávez.
Morales, who is Chávez’s first protégé, has been faithful to the principles of the Chávez plan, seizing control of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves (among the largest in the world) shortly after taking office in January, 2007. Unlike his mentor Chavez, who is swimming in oil money, Morales has been unable to realize the potential of Bolivia’ enormous gas deposits due to a lack of adequate infrastructure. Now, with the citizens of Santa Cruz flexing their political muscles, Morales faces not only the obvious challenge to his control of Viru Viru airport, but also the challenge to the future control of gas revenues (and indeed, the entire country) as the majority of Bolivia’s fields lie within Santa Cruz.
Overnight, Bolivia has taken center stage in the struggle between Capitalism and Socialism in Latin America.